The first book that I would say really changed my life is Joyce’s Ulysses. I didn’t read it because I wanted to. I was in graduate school, and was taking a course. At first, I hated it. The writing is lugubrious in places. You need companion texts just to understand the damn thing. And for all those pages, not all that much really happens. But something happened to me. I started to feel like I’d fallen into a movie or something. I’d never read a book that was so vivid before, so minute, and both so mannered but also absolutely real. If you look at pictures of turn-of-the-century Dublin, you see how well Joyce got it all on the page. The novel didn’t make me want to write, though. It made me want to study. And so I did. All the way to a PhD.
The second book that’s changed my life has done so more in a more subtle way. It’s also unwieldy, over the top, and, in places, inscrutible. Yes, my friends, I’m talking about the good, old Bible. One day last year, I realized I haven’t read one of the world’s most important books, so I decided to. Front to back.
I’m only partway through, but I have to say, I have been shocked. The Old Testament is like the world’s best and oldest soap opera. I mean, you have everything a good, sudsy story needs: jealous lovers (and gods), multiple marriages, inheritence problems, sibling rivalry. And the parts with Jesus are just as good. You can’t figure the guy out. One minute he’s the nice guy in flowing robes, and the next he’s telling off his hometown (after they try to throw him off a cliff).
I wouldn’t say I’ve become more religious, or even very religious, but I will say that reading the bible has definitely impacted me as a writer. It’s gotten me back to the root of stories, to the basic elements of narration. It’s taught me the necessity of having a terrific villain and a hero, but that no one is all good or bad, and that a reader sometimes needs some big questions answered in the course of a rollicking tale. It’s taught me how history threads through present moments, the value of a grand gesture, and reminded me about endings.
And finally, I will say this: All books–well, the good ones–should change you a little. Read away!